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The Rise of the Thought Leader

How the superrich have funded a new class of intellectual.

Writing in one of Mussolini’s prisons in the 1930s, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci jotted down the fragments that would become his theory of intellectuals. New classes, like the European bourgeoisie after the Industrial Revolution, he proposed, brought with them their own set of thinkers, which he called “organic intellectuals”—theorists, technicians, and administrators, who became their “functionaries” in a new society. Unlike “traditional intellectuals” who held positions in the old class structure, organic intellectuals helped the bourgeoisie establish its ideas as the invisible, unquestioned conventional wisdom circulating in social institutions.

Today, Gramsci’s theory has been largely overlooked in the ongoing debate over the supposed decline of the “public intellectual” in America. Great minds, we are told, no longer captivate the public as they once did, because the university is too insular and academic thinking is too narrow. Such laments frequently cite Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals (1987), which complained about the post-1960s professionalization of academia and waxed nostalgic for the bohemian, “independent” intellectuals of the earlier twentieth century. Writers like the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof attribute this sorry state of affairs to the culture of Ph.D. programs, which, Kristof claims, have glorified “arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” If academics cannot bring their ideas to a wider readership, these familiar critiques imply, it is because of the academic mindset itself.

In his book The Ideas Industry, the political scientist and foreign policy blogger Daniel W. Drezner broadens the focus to include the conditions in which ideas are formed, funded, and expressed. Describing the public sphere in the language of markets, he argues that three major factors have altered the fortunes of today’s intellectuals: the evaporation of public trust in institutions, the polarization of American society, and growing economic inequality. He correctly identifies the last of these as the most important: the extraordinary rise of the American superrich, a class interested in supporting a particular genre of “ideas.”

The rich have, Drezner writes, empowered a new kind of thinker—the “thought leader”—at the expense of the much-fretted-over “public intellectual.” Whereas public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky or Martha Nussbaum are skeptical and analytical, thought leaders like Thomas Friedman and Sheryl Sandberg “develop their own singular lens to explain the world, and then proselytize that worldview to anyone within earshot.” While public intellectuals traffic in complexity and criticism, thought leaders burst with the evangelist’s desire to “change the world.” Many readers, Drezner observes, prefer the “big ideas” of the latter to the complexity of the former. In a marketplace of ideas awash in plutocrat cash, it has become “increasingly profitable for thought leaders to hawk their wares to both billionaires and a broader public,” to become “superstars with their own brands, sharing a space previously reserved for moguls, celebrities, and athletes.”

Drezner does his best to take an objective view of the thought leader as a new kind of intellectual who fulfills a function different from that of the public intellectual, though an equally legitimate one. “It is surely noteworthy,” he writes, optimistically, “that a strong demand has emerged for new ideas and vibrant ways of thinking about the world.” But he seems to portray this thirst for new ideas as a positive development even while conceding that the ideas currently thirsted for are at best shallow and banal, at worst deeply anti-democratic, and at times outright fraudulent.

The case against thought leaders, The Ideas Industry shows, is damning. As Drezner notes, some of the marquee names in thought leadership are distinguished by their facile thinking and transparent servility to the wealthy. The biggest idea in Thomas Friedman’s best-known book, The World Is Flat, is, Drezner summarizes, that “to thrive in the global economy, one needs to be ‘special,’ a unique brand like Michael Jordan.” It is more of a marketing principle than a philosophical insight. But “businessmen adore Friedman’s writings on how technology and globalization transform the global economy,” Drezner explains, because his message reinforces their worldview.

Like Friedman, thought leaders Parag and Ayesha Khanna proclaim the world-historical power of technological innovation, preaching that technology with a capital “T” is replacing economics and geopolitics as the engine of global change. As Evgeny Morozov has observed, Parag Khanna believes that “democracy might be incompatible with globalization and capitalism,” arguing that we should thus embrace authoritarian, Chinese-style capitalism. In his own review of Khanna’s Connectography, Drezner characterized his thinking as “globaloney” and likened his prose style to “a TED talk on a recursive loop.”

Drezner traces how the pursuit of money in the new corporate ideas industry—through television shows, high-dollar speeches, and lavish book advances—pushes thought leaders to bloat their expertise and hustle in so many markets that they end up selling fakes. The most notorious example is Fareed Zakaria, the CNN host and columnist who has been caught lifting passages from other writers to feed his multiplatform output. Similarly, the historian Niall Ferguson leapt headlong into brand-building: crafting books intended as scripts for TV series, giving lucrative speeches, and writing for a dizzying array of publications. Like other overstretched thought leaders, Ferguson landed in trouble when his Newsweek cover story on President Obama in 2012 turned out to be riddled with errors and misleading claims. Interviewed for The Ideas Industry, Ferguson is frank about his transformation from Oxford don to thought leader: “I did it all for the money.”

Despite Drezner’s impatience with the delusions of thought leaders, he shrinks from the darker implications of his evidence. When it comes time to render a verdict on whether the Ideas Industry is “working,” he conjures an economic metaphor: “For good and ill, the modern marketplace of ideas strongly resembles modern financial markets. Usually, the system works. On occasion, however, there can be asset bubbles.”

Nowhere is the inadequacy of this metaphor more evident than in his case study of the rise and fall of Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation.” Christensen proposed that “disrupters”—companies that upend their industries with new technologies and business models—gain a competitive advantage over companies that grow by gradually improving their product. Airbnb might be considered a disrupter in the hotel industry, for instance, since it has grown rapidly by attracting a large base of users who rent their homes to guests, instead of acquiring and operating hotels. The idea of “disruptive innovation” caught fire in Silicon Valley, Drezner argues, because it “conformed to a plutocratic worldview in which success favors the bold, risk-taking entrepreneur.” Atop this enthusiasm, Christensen built a lucrative brand, producing eight books and founding the Forum for Growth and Innovation at Harvard, his own consulting company, and a boutique investment firm.

In 2014, however, nearly two decades after Christensen debuted disruptive innovation in the Harvard Business Review, historian Jill Lepore eviscerated the theory in a widely read essay in The New Yorker. Lepore found that Christensen’s case studies were ambiguous and overblown: Seagate Technology, a company that was supposed to have been “felled by disruption,” had in fact thrived, doubling its sales the year after Christensen ended his study. Disruptive companies whose successes he heralded had meanwhile gone out of business. Lepore’s essay prompted an even more damning critique of Christensen in MIT Sloan Management Review, and sparked a backlash in Silicon Valley.

Drezner seems to view this case study as a prime example of how the market for ideas regulates itself: A public intellectual checked a thought leader, popping an “asset bubble” in the process. The two types of thinker, in Drezner’s view, balance each other. But just as in economics, the market metaphor brings with it a quasi-theological belief that everything eventually evens out—an ideology that is deliberately blind to the way the largest players in the capitalist system rig that system in their own favor. After all, disruptive innovation survived unharmed for two decades as a theory of everything, and to this day disruption proceeds apace. Billions of dollars are still pouring into business schools to inspire similar claptrap, while university science departments—less-direct conduits to frenetic moneymaking—scramble for funding, and the humanities torturously ride out a planned obsolescence.

The influx of plutocrat money has done much more than produce a handful of hollow thinkers. The institutions that enable intellectuals to conduct meaningful research are also being radically remade by their new sponsors. Over the past few decades, as funding from government sources and philanthropic organizations has dried up, think tanks have tried to make up the deficits by courting donations from corporations, foreign governments, and politically minded elites. These donors, however, are less interested in supporting intellectually prestigious, nonpartisan work than they are in manufacturing political support for their preferred ideas. In other words, they want a return on their investment.

As a result, think tanks have become increasingly partisan. As Drezner recounts, when former Senator Jim DeMint was appointed president of the Heritage Foundation in 2012, it pivoted from research to activism in an attempt to satisfy its donors. (DeMint was ultimately ousted, Politico reported in April, for making the think tank “too bombastic and political—to the detriment of its research and scholarly aims.”) In 2012, the Koch brothers sued the Cato Institute to gain more control over the organization, whose research sometimes clashed with Republican orthodoxy. Liberal think tanks, meanwhile, have surrendered to corporate influence that is less nakedly partisan but equally compromising: The Brookings Institution recently made a real estate developer a senior fellow, while accepting $400,000 to lobby for his company’s redevelopment plans in San Francisco.

A similar effect is at work in the university. As the governing boards of universities become increasingly dominated by bankers, hedge fund managers, and real estate developers, long-standing academic prohibitions against industry-influenced research have been swept aside. Even prestigious universities now open their doors to industry-intertwined research: At the University of California, Berkeley, for example, research sponsored by BP produced the widely reported conclusion that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill hadn’t been as bad as everyone thought. As the historian Philip Mirowski details in Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science, universities have eagerly taken up the research-and-development operations of corporations, which no longer deem it cost-effective to do their research in-house. And because they are subject to competitive pressure, corporations are far less likely to invest in basic research, which leads to major scientific breakthroughs, than in applied research, which makes them money faster.

Corporate sponsors, in turn, have grown bolder, pressuring scientists to steer their research away from conclusions that might threaten profits, and working to discredit those who insist on following the facts where they lead, particularly in climate science. This is to say nothing of the corporate money pouring into universities—even the most elite ones—to fund propagandistic courses on the virtues of capitalism and research on the flaws of the welfare state. As Michael Massing reported in The New York Review of Books last year, Columbia University’s Teachers College accepted a multimillion-dollar grant to produce a high school curriculum on “the fiscal challenges that face the nation”—code for “why we need to cut entitlements”—while the financial services company BB&T has donated to dozens of colleges to promote the “moral foundations of capitalism” and the thought of Ayn Rand.

The evidence in Drezner’s book contributes to a startling picture of a country in which the superrich actively seek to sabotage institutions that have formed the backbone of consensus and public trust for a large part of the twentieth century. Because their wealth comes largely from finance and is no longer attached to the country’s material infrastructure—they are not steel magnates or railroad barons—modern plutocrats no longer use their fortunes to secure a legacy of contributing to public needs. Instead they weaponize their wealth, with the aim of creating even more capital and remaking society according to their own, unrepresentative political beliefs. “Only 35 percent of wealthy Americans support spending what is necessary to ensure good public schools,” Drezner notes, “a sharp contrast to 87-percent support from the general public.” The wealthy also support cuts to government spending and social programs much more strongly than the rest of the public—which fits with their compulsion to spend millions on trying to buy academic legitimacy for unregulated capitalism.

The intellectual institutions of postwar America were far from perfect; universities and think tanks accepted military-oriented funding from the U.S. government and often provided the intellectual foundations for American imperialism. Nevertheless, the three decades after World War II—when corporate power was checked by a strong labor movement, higher education became broadly accessible, and social services were expanded—were the most democratic in American history. Universities and think tanks were able to establish a baseline of public trust, in part because their production of knowledge was not directly beholden to the whims of idiosyncratic billionaires demanding that their “metrics” be met and their pet political ideas be substantiated.

Surveying this new landscape, it is clear that the true role of the thought leader is to serve as the organic intellectual of the one percent—the figure who, as Gramsci put it, gives the emerging class “an awareness of its own function” in society. The purpose of the thought leader is to mirror, systematize, and popularize the delusions of the superrich: that they have earned their fortunes on merit, that social protections need to be further eviscerated to make everyone more flexible for “the future,” and that local attachments and alternative ways of living should be replaced by an aspirational consumerism. The thought leader aggregates these fundamental convictions into a great humanitarian mission. Every problem, he prophesies, can be solved with technology and rich people’s money, if we will only get our traditions, communities, and democratic norms out of the way.

Whether it’s a foreign policy expert insisting on military intervention, a business-school prophet proclaiming the virtues of disruption, a Silicon Valley genius reducing politics to engineering, or a Times columnist championing the ineluctable march of autonomous technology, today’s thought leaders all share a core worldview: that extreme wealth and the channels by which it was obtained are not only legitimate but heroic. This is why the Ideas Industry, as Drezner effectively shows, favors the thought leader over the more critical, skeptical public intellectual: Academics tend “to dismiss the ‘Great Man’ theory of events.” If the marketplace of ideas is flooded with hucksters evangelizing the next big thing and the importance of billionaires for “making the world a better place,” it is because that’s what billionaires want to hear.

However deeply the superrich have degraded American intellectual and political discourse, the Ideas Industry has also created an opening—albeit a very slim one—for a different kind of organic intellectual. The one percent’s attempts to disrupt the media and universities have had the unintended consequence of radicalizing a generation of young writers and academics on the left—those recently dubbed “the new public intellectuals” in The Chronicle for Higher Education. Facing dim job prospects in the academy, leftists who might once have become professors increasingly define themselves as writers or political organizers. Bad times, historically speaking, are good for ideas, and our moment is no exception. We’re arguably living in a new golden age of little magazines: Not only have publications like n+1, Jacobin, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Current Affairs appeared in recent years, but older ones like The Baffler and Dissent have been resurrected or revitalized.

Gramsci’s conception of the organic intellectual was not merely meant to describe the prophets of the European bourgeoisie and its industrial capitalism. The organic intellectual was above all a concept for the left: a name for those who, emerging from working-class conditions, had the inclination and ability to express their vision of society and organize it into action. He envisioned not a savior swooping down from the elite, but thinkers sharing an experience of economic privation, translated into both an intellectual and social struggle.

Already these new intellectuals on the left have begun to emerge as editors, authors, organizers, and gadflies in the new social media ecosystem. They have a greater presence in the public sphere than at any point in the last half century, and have shown themselves willing to expose the prattle of thought leaders, to attack the rhetorical smoke screens of the liberal center, and to defend working-class voters against accusations of incurable racism and mindless populism. The intellectual world is an important dimension of a broader struggle; the self-serving theories and empty buzzwords of today’s thought leaders must be not only denounced but replaced with rich concepts that help all kinds of people make sense of the world as it is. No less than other forms of organizing, this intellectual work requires significant personal courage—to reject the posture of scholarly detachment and the conventions of civility that discourage criticism of ideas that enjoy elite support.

But intellectual intervention alone will never be enough. The same conditions that gave us the Ideas Industry overwhelmingly favor concentrated economic and political power. Even as we cast a critical light on the connections between one percenters and thought leaders, we must organize in the physical and social world where the “ideas” of the economic elite have their most pernicious effects. The new energy behind the unionization of the academy and the media are an excellent start, but only a start. What intellectuals need is the same as what everyone else needs: a society that prioritizes human flourishing over private profit, and strong political networks that guard public goods against the prophets of an atomized, high-tech future. However difficult that society may be to achieve, one thing about the present gives hope. We are finally getting clear about who its enemies are.